Monday, June 8, 2009

Living with Germs

Spring and Summer 1998, Portland, Oregon

After Arthur and I returned from our first trip to Cuba, he told me I could stay at his house for free while we made preparations for the next trip. I could help him out around the house as well as take care of all the things he wanted to do to bring his wife Sady to the USA, such as talking to lawyers and setting up a temporary bank account in Canada.
Being completely broke, unemployed and unemployable, I of course agreed, quickly making myself at home upstairs in the loft.

Bruce lived in the little shack out in the driveway where Arthur and his ex wife once ran Cripple Power Press. When Bruce wasn’t there, I noticed the huge padlock he put on the door. I wondered what he could be hiding or protecting, considering he never seemed to have any money and he always wore the same clothes. For years the little shack printed all of Arthur’s books of poetry and stories, selling them at Saturday Market and other places. One book was made into an award winning animated short, Arnold and His Bright Idea, a basically autobiographical tale of how Arthur used to go around in his first homemade wheelchair, selling light bulbs from house to house. He used the film to give talks in schools to show kids not to fear people with Cerebral Palsy.
In any case, Bruce was an old friend of Arthur’s from the Trojan Nuclear Plant protests and closure, so there was some deep loyalty between them, like they’d seen a lot and struggled side by side, old soldiers put out to pasture. Bruce was also friends with a young woman named Jessica and her five year old daughter Maya who used to live in the loft where I was living now. We had been hanging out a bit, and kissed in a sloppy drunks embrace one time when she and Maya stayed the night. Jessica spoke well of Bruce so I wanted to give the old diehard the benefit of the doubt, despite his quirky ways. I remember she told me to cook my eggs on low, for like twenty minutes very slowly or the protein all gets cooked away, or at least that’s what Bruce told her.

When I first saw him in the living room watching TV, he put a Kleenex over the remote control, I figured just because it was kind of old and grimy. The first time I said hello when I got home, he ignored me and laughed at the TV, and did the same every time I came home. I didn’t stop saying hello, but eventually it grew from a game of courtesy and became a very vindictive hello, over the top hey Bruce my man how ya doin Had a good day Glad to hear it, that kind of thing, just mocking him under my flaming whisky breath. Things degenerated quickly and sometimes I got in his face so he would at least know I was there, but he always avoided my eyes and moved on the sofa so he could see the TV behind me.
One night Arthur and I came home after the bars closed and decided to make some dinner. I put the cast iron skillet on high to fry some eggs, but when I came out of the kitchen I saw Arthur had puked all over himself. I helped him out of his clothes and cleaned him up and he went to bed. Both of us forgot the skillet and the next morning Bruce met me in the kitchen screaming that I could have burned down the whole house. He looked and sounded like an old wolf, his long grey hair and beard framing deep empty gray eyes. He was probably right, and I apologized profusely, trying to calm him down. Arthur said just don’t let it happen again.
The hellos and mocking hellos stopped after that. I thought it best to leave the guy alone and try not to have any dealings with him. A few weeks passed and we didn’t see much of Bruce, I thought maybe he had left for good. Arthur said sometimes he went out to the woods alone, you never knew how long. Guess he had some friends out there too. He appeared one day to do his laundry, and waited while watching TV, as if he had never been gone. I didn’t know if he was there for good or not.
I had also planned to do some laundry. When Bruce’s last load had finished drying, I took it out and put it in a basket, put my wet clothes in the drier and cranked it up. I went back upstairs and figured he’d see his clothes and that would be that. Next thing I know he is screaming at the bottom of the stairs if you ever touch my clothes again I will kill you, you hear me, kill you you motherfucker….really screaming, like no need to put exclamation points, you get the idea this was a complete head case.
I grabbed my old Stella acoustic guitar to defend myself and ran downstairs ready to bash his head in. He was blocking the doorway so I menaced him with the big end of the guitar and shoved my way through the dining room and kitchen to the dryer. He had taken my wet clothes and thrown them on the floor, right into the big dog dishes, kibbles and bits stuck to my clean tee shirts. He was still screaming at me so I shoved him back into the kitchen hard enough so he knew what I was capable of, then turned my back on him to clean my clothes and put them back in the washer. When I turned around, he was standing in front of the sink, panting and rubbing his hands together. I swear I saw foam in the corners of his mouth.
I didn’t see Bruce again until a month later. He didn’t come around when I was there at least, but Arthur met with him a few times before we left for Cuba and they made a deal that Bruce would build a new accessible bathroom while we were away. When we got home after the six week trip, there was a hole where the bathroom used to be and no sign of Bruce. A few days later there was a note in the mailbox telling Arthur he needed another $5,000 to finish the job, that he had underbid and needed to get more materials. Funny, I didn’t see any materials at all in that big hole where the bathroom used to be. Before we could even look at whether or not it indeed was a $10,000 job, something I highly doubted, Bruce hunted Arthur down on his usual rounds in the Park Blocks, harassing him and chasing the electric wheelchair down the street screaming for his money. All Arthur could do was dart his chair into some bar and wait it out.

I tried to find out from Arthur what was wrong with this guy. I asked him why, if he had known Bruce so long, why he didn’t see all this bad craziness coming. Arthur raised his head up from off his chest and, with a twinkle in his eye, raised his index finger ready to speak. I waited for the words to form, looking into his toothless mouth hoping for some clue to Bruce’s past, an Achilles heel that we could use to bring him down. In a short burst of spit and drool, he said I got the key to the shack.

Bruce hadn’t been around for a couple weeks and we didn’t expect him back anytime soon, so Arthur gave me the key and I went in. There wasn’t much in the little shack besides a folded up cot, a couple boxes of winter clothes, and then in the corner I saw a Moroccan style leather briefcase, one of those you might see in a film noir spy movie. I took it inside for better light and we started looking through it.
There were numerous press clippings, including the same one I saw everyday framed in the dining room, a photo of Arthur from the New York Times lying on the ground in front of the riot police, Trojan Nuclear plant steaming in the background. A man was kneeling down beside him and his chair. I looked at the eyes a little closer and sure enough they were the same deep empty eyes of Bruce with no beard and short hair. Arthur nodded when he realized I had made the connection between the photos.
Other clippings showed other protests over the years, and upon closer look, the same wolf eyes could be found in each and every photo. Bruce had been around, from the first year at Ground Zero Nevada Test Site all the way to the 1999 Seattle WTO shutdown. In many of the photos, I thought, he was looking toward, if not directly at, the camera, as if he knew from which direction his picture was being taken.

Then we came across another sealed with a string plastic envelope, untying it and dumping it on the table. We sifted through, seeing those same empty eyes under a cadet’s cap, high collar pushing up clean shaven neck and erect head; a far off shot of a military graduation ceremony; a Stars and Stripes clipping of Bruce and a few other tired looking soldiers flanking some roped together villagers in conical bamboo hats; three family photos, a pretty wife and three year old daughter standing next to a new model Ford Galaxie 500, Bruce in sargent’s uniform, all the houses look the same; a picture of some men in camouflage fatigues looking intently at a map; pictures of another young girl, from somewhere in Latin America; a newspaper article called Banker’s Son Opts for Vietnam; documents with a US government seal stamped on the front and lines blotted out; an article in Spanish from 1981 called Habla la hija del Teniente; a 1982 press clipping from Stars and Stripes entitled Light Aircraft Goes Down over Hudson with Decorated Veteran; a US passport and death certificate with the same name.

Arthur got hold of Bruce somehow and said I can meet you with the money at such and such time in the Park Blocks on such and such corner. Arthur and I rode the bus downtown together and he went to the University Grill to wait for me. I went up the Park Blocks and saw the gray haired wolf up ahead sitting on a bench waiting for Arthur, his empty eyes fixed on a twirling falling leaf. I came round front of him and bowed into the camera so to speak with a wave of my hand. What a coincidence he thought at first I’m sure, but when I pulled the envelope out of my pocket and handed it to him, he knew he’d been set up. I got something for you was all I said handing it to him, sauntering off, listening to the sound of paper ripping behind me.
It was just a hunch, but we composed a simple note with Bruce’s real name at the top and Arthur’s illegible scrawled signature at the bottom. We never did see Bruce again.
Esteemed Christopher Wilkins III,
If you ever come within fifty yards of me or my property again, I will alert the Federal authorities as to your whereabouts and have you arrested.

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